By now, it should be a shock to no one that the near unanimous consensus among most of us who watch All My Children here at Daytime Confidential, the casting of Jamie Luner as Liza Colby Chandler has been a huge bust as of this writing. We know that opinion could change in the future with a knockout performance by Luner, an engaging storyline for the character, or a relationship of any kind that could revitalize Liza and make us see her with new eyes. Unfortunately, none of those three things have happened yet.
The collective criticism of this "new" Liza has centered mostly around the (mis)casting of Ms. Luner, an actress who has her fair share of fans from her days on Melrose Place, Savannah and other shows. On AMC, however, Ms. Luner is delivering the kind of performance that might described as, if I may be permitted to coin a phrase, pseudo-catatonic. Sure, some of the dialogue sounds a little like what Liza might say, but not after three tablespoons of Nyquil.
As a result, at first I was convinced that the problem with Liza was mostly the fault of the actress. That opinion changed with a couple of scenes that aired on Monday's episode that revealed the fundamental reason this character isn't working is because of head writer Chuck Pratt's fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of Liza.
Let's get back to the actresses for a second. To be perfectly fair, original portrayer Marcy Walker has an acting style that is very similar to Ms. Luner's: carefully modulated line delivery in a slightly husky voice. Both Ms. Walker and Ms. Luner have a Lauren Bacall-esque doe-eyed look that go a long way toward conveying a certain kind of permanent emotional wounded state that Liza has always been in regardless of her villainous machinations as a young teenager or her emotional vacillation as a grown woman.
This is where the similarities between the two actresses end. If there was a single undercurrent that Walker consistently brought to Liza during her many off and on years playing the role, it was that underneath all of Liza's "stuff" was a little girl of intense pride and defensiveness borne out of the fear of becoming just like her mother, Marian (Jennifer Bassey). This imbued Liza with a kind of recognizable vulnerability that allowed viewers to love to hate her one minute, detest her without writing her off the next minute and then turn around root for her when it was all said and done.
Luner is still relatively new to the role, but none of these traits have been evident. The "new" Liza is a manipulating shark, almost cold-blooded in her interactions with every one with whom she has the slightest connection. This approach serves her well in Liza's fractious interactions with Erica (Susan Lucci), but is unwise when it comes to Liza's daughter Colby (Brianne Moncrief) or best pal Jake (Ricky Paull Goldin), the only person in the cast with whom Luner shows any semblance of emotional connection.
However, as tempting as it is solely to blame Luner, the fundamental problem with this new version of Liza revealed itself in the aforementioned Monday episode where Liza, Colby and Adam (David Canary) had a little family chat. The divorcees were trying to explain to Colby (as if the nearly grown Colby was five years old, mind you) why their marriage failed. During this chemistry-free conversation, Liza said that the reason her marriage to Adam failed was that they both wanted control.
At that point, I spit out my Minute Maid Pomegranate Lemonade and did a triple take in an effort to digest what I had just heard. Suddenly, it clicked that other characters in Liza's orbit have recently been talking with great regularity about how tough Liza is, how devious Liza can be and how Liza doesn't like to "lose." As Liza's words sank in, it finally dawned on me that the root of this misfire is that Pratt thinks that Liza's motivation has been and is about "control" for the sake of being a controlling person, not unlike Adam to whom she was never equal in terms of background, money or power. All of those things are true on a superficial level, but control in and of itself was never Liza's deepest motivation nor her defining characteristic. From the moment Liza Colby burst onto the screen in Pine Valley in 1981, she has always wanted to be free.
Liza wanted to be free from either from something or through something. She wanted to be free from the specter of turning into her boozy, materialistic, shallow, bed-hopping mother. In order to achieve it, she wanted respectability-disguised-as-love through old-money Greg Nelson and became obssessed with him, conniving to steal him from Jenny Gardner (who Liza tellingly regarded as white trash at the time) and became a lifelong nemesis of Jenny's best friend Jesse (Darnell Williams) in the process. When Liza could not gain freedom through social position, she tried to amass it through power via her television career, from stealing a job from Tad (Michael E. Knight) to battling Dmitiri Marrick over WRCW. Of course, the biggest fight for her freedom was via her marriage(s) to Adam. She reluctantly fell in love with him and embraced the both the power and position that being a Chandler that freedom through wealth brought her on a superficial level, and then fought an often losing battle against him many times, mostly for control of her own life and personhood until she finally felt she had to give up fighting him and run away.
On its surface, one could probably make a good case that Liza has always been trying to define herself on her own terms. While this is also a part of Liza's makeup, turning this into Liza's central motivation misses the point of who Liza is and the one that Pratt apparently got wrong. The great irony of Liza Colby is that Liza has never really known who she is and, even more ironically, has always been defined in one way or another by the very things she was fighting to be free from or ultimately trapped by the things she wanted to be free to be. In that light, even when Liza was at her most self-assured would she ultimately be led to make often ill-advised decisions, engage in self-destructive behavior or, worst of all, be compromised by others, most specifically Adam.
The person that Pratt is writing for is a Liza who seemingly knows who she is, what she wants, and how she is going to get it. On the surface, this might seem like progress, especially for a smart, driven character like Liza if it took into account what has driven her all these years. Pratt's version likely would be all well and good if close to 25 years of historical precedent were referenced as subtext for this current iteration of Liza and her actions now. Sadly, almost all of that history is missing in favor of a recitation of select plot points and a rewriting of character motivation. In other words, it gets us to someone who is, as the character said in that conversation, the Liza who always wanted "control." Then again as I said, Liza and Adam were talking to Colby as if she were five years old; perhaps the intent was that Colby was to be a surrogate for us the audience and that we, like she, was supposed to simply accept whatever revisionist explanation was handed to us.
As a general rule, as a viewer I like to give recasts a chance to gel and to allow head writers, especially new ones, the leeway to interpret re-imagined characters as they see fit as long as those characters remain recognizable at their core. In fact, I normally bristle at such comparisons as the one I am making here, but there are exceptions to that rule specifically when it comes down to the writingas opposed to the actors, whose fundamental job is to essay their roles as written.
In this case, Liza never just wanted "control" as a means to itself, which has always been Adam's motivation. What Liza always wanted was to be free and in control, a subtle but powerful distinction that makes the character who she is and is in stark contrast to whatever we have been seeing on screen for the last several months. I strongly suspect this is why Ms. Luner doesn't seem to be gelling in the role as much as she otherwise would have been by this point had Pratt really grasped who Liza is and has been for close to a quarter century. What he currently is selling as Liza Colby, I'm simply not buying.